bored girl in a classroom

Rethinking Reports

By Melissa Thibault and David Walbert

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Year after year, students are assigned an animal report, a factual report on a species of their choice. My son chose the Harpy Eagle for his third-grade animal report — and proceeded to re-submit that report with only slight modifications for years thereafter! (One of these days, someone who taught my son will be in a conference presentation — or reading this article — and I can hear them now. “Oh, that explains everything!”)

Should I have intervened and insisted that my son do yet another research paper outlining the habitat, diet, and life cycle of a different, randomly chosen animal? Perhaps, but I didn’t. I chose to focus on the curriculum my son had to learn rather than the random assignment. Would re-doing the same factual research process accomplish the goals of the science curriculum? No. The science objectives in the upper grades were more complex and involved ecological systems; a report on a single animal wasn’t going to teach them.

Some of the concepts intertwined with the study of animals are life cycles, adaptations, interdependence, habitats, and food webs. Of these topics, only life cycles and adaptations are specific to one animal. Broader topics related to an entire ecosystem cannot be addressed in a report focused upon one animal. So the animal report should be assigned to help students understand the life cycles of various animals and/or how an animal’s successful adaptation to an environment is necessary for survival.

The articles in this series will get you thinking creatively about student research and teaching these topics.